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Unlock Your Fitness Potential With Heart Rate Zone Training

Are you looking for a way to supercharge your workouts and achieve your fitness goals faster? Heart rate zone training might be the key you’ve been searching for. 

Whether you’re a beginner, a seasoned athlete or somewhere in between, understanding and using heart rate zones can transform your exercise routine and maximize your results. 

We spoke with Roderick Tung, MD, a cardiologist and electrophysiologist with Banner – University Medicine, about heart rate training, how to do it and its benefits.

What is heart rate zone training?

Heart rate zone training (HRT) is a method of exercising where you monitor and maintain your heart rate with specific zones. These zones correspond to different levels of intensity (how hard you are working out) and are usually based on a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR). 

Your target heart rate is the range of beats per minute (bpm) at which your heart should be beating during exercise to achieve your fitness goals. It’s often referred to in the context of heart rate zones, as each zone represents a different target heart rate (THR) range.

“Being in tune with your target heart rate zone is important as it can let you know if you are pushing too hard, not enough or are in the metabolic sweet spot that optimizes cardiovascular training and fat burning, or what we call the target heart rate,” Dr. Tung said. 

HRT isn’t just for elite athletes. Understanding your heart rate zones can improve your fitness levels, help you get the most out of your workout and reduce the risk of injury and burnout. It can also help you navigate the ups and downs of training. By training smarter not harder, you can achieve your goals more efficiently.

Here’s a breakdown of each heart rate zones

There are five HRT zones. As the zone numbers rise, so do the target heart rate range and the degree of effort required to remain at that heart rate zone.

Zone 1: Warm-up (50% to 60% of MHR)
  • Purpose: Gentle exercise, warming up, cooling down
  • Type: Leisurely walk, dynamic stretches, easy bike ride
  • Benefits: Prepares your body for more intense exercise, aids in recovery
  • Feel: Very light, easy to maintain a conversation
Zone 2: Fat burn (60% to 70% of MHR)
  • Purpose: Burns fat, builds aerobic endurance
  • Type: Fast walk, slow jog
  • Benefits: Enhances fat metabolism, improves base fitness
  • Feel: Comfortable, steady pace, can hold a conversation
Zone 3: Aerobic (70% to 80% of MHR)
  • Purpose: Increases cardiovascular endurance
  • Type: Race pace, tempo runs or cycling
  • Benefit: Strengthens the heart and lungs, builds stamina
  • Feel: Moderate effort, conversation more difficult

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends keeping your heart rate within the moderate-intensity zone (Zone 3) to get the most aerobic benefits from 150 minutes of weekly exercise.

Zone 4: Anaerobic (80% to 90% of MHR)
  • Purpose: Improve speed and power
  • Type: Short bursts, high-intensity exercise
  • Benefit: Improves performance gains in speed, strength and endurance
  • Feel: Hard effort, unable to carry conversation, heavy breathing
Zone 5: Maximum effort (90% to 100% MHR)
  • Purpose: Your all-out, peak performance
  • Type: Sprints, the final push in a race
  • Benefit: Builds maximum speed, power and performance
  • Feel: Very hard effort, can’t do for long periods

Finding your heart rate zones

Step One: Resting heart rate

Before diving into the zones, you need to know your resting heart rate (RHR). The best time to do this is before you get out of bed or check your phone first thing in the morning. You can measure your pulse on the inside of your wrist or using health monitoring tools like a wearable fitness tracker or smartwatch

Track it over several days to get a consistent reading. The average RHR should be between 60 to 90 bpm. However, some athletes could have a lower heart rate of 40 to 50 bpm.

Step two: Maximum heart rate

A common formula for estimating your MHR is to subtract your age from 220 (the highest number of bpm that your heart can safely handle). For example, if you are 40 years old:

MHR= 220 – 40 = 180 bpm. 

“For a more accurate measurement, you might consider an exercise tolerance or stress test,” Dr. Tung said.

Step 3: Target heart rate

Once you have your MHR, you can figure out your THR zone as 60% to 80% of that number. For example, if you are 40 and your MHR is 180, your THR would range from 108 to 144 bpm. This is considered the sweet spot for moderate-intensity activity.

“Please note that these are just averages to use as a guide,” Dr. Tung said. “If you feel these are off, talk with your health care provider to determine the best heart rate zone for you.”

How to use heart rate zones


Start with Zones 1 and 2. Focus on building a solid foundation of aerobic fitness. This will help you develop a good base, burn fat and improve overall health. As you get more comfortable, you can move into Zone 3.

If you haven’t been physically active for quite some time or have an underlying health condition, check with your provider first before starting any exercise training routine. 

“While I don’t really worry about athletes who’ve taken a few years off after high school or college and are picking up exercise again in their 20s or 30s, I do worry about those who’ve taken a decade or more off,” Dr. Tung said. “It’s important to meet with your provider to first check things out with your blood pressure and overall health. See your cardiologist if you have a preexisting heart condition, like heart failure or heart attack.”

If you are on beta blockers, you will not be able to rely on HRT zones because these medications block the natural heart rate response to exercise. Your provider or cardiologist can help you determine a perceived level of exertion using a rate of perceived exertion scale. 

Intermediate exercisers

If you have more fitness experience, mix Zones 2, 3 and 4. This combination allows you to continue burning fat while building endurance, all while adding higher-intensity bursts that can boost your speed and power. Aim for a balanced mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercises throughout the week. 

Advanced athletes

If you’re an experienced athlete, your training should include all five zones. However, use Zone 5 sparingly as it involves maximum effort and can be taxing on the body. Add high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to push your limits, improve performance and achieve peak fitness. 

Tips for effective heart rate zone training

  1. Invest in a heart rate monitor for accurate tracking.
  2. Warm-up and cool down, starting and ending with Zone 1, to prevent injuries and aid recovery.
  3. Stay hydrated to maintain your heart rate and performance during workouts.
  4. Listen to your body. Stop if you feel lightheaded (near fainting), have a pounding heartbeat beyond normal exertion during a workout or have chest pain or discomfort.
  5. Avoid monotony by mixing up your workouts. 
  6. Speak to your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist before starting a new fitness program or if you have an underlying health condition.

Final thoughts

Heart rate zone training offers a personalized approach to fitness, allowing you to tailor your workouts to your specific goals and current fitness level. By understanding your heart rate zones, you can unlock your full potential and make every workout count. Whether you’re just starting or looking to take your training to the next level, heart rate zone training can help you achieve your goals. 

Ready to give it a try? Grab your heart rate monitor, calculate your zones and start training smarter today. 

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